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Family Life: Why is my nine-year-old suffering from anxiety?

OUR nine-year-old son has a few problems we are concerned about. He is afraid to go upstairs on his own, and always insists that one of us takes him up to the toilet.

He also won't go to sleep on his own (he says he gets nightmares), and so one of us has to stay with him till he falls asleep at night. He still wets the bed too.

We are also concerned that he has no friends. He says he doesn't like this guy and that guy. He does play for a rugby team, but won't mix and play around with the other kids on the team. He won't mix with other kids in the estate.

He can get very angry if he is upset, and says cruel things like that he hates his life and hates his whole family.

Do all these relate to the one problem? We are worried that he will not grow out of these problems.

My wife says he's afraid because he may have watched something scary on TV some time ago when he was much younger.

His fears are long established and his need for your help is habitual.

 

Answer:

IT CAN often be quite hard to pinpoint when or where an anxiety begins. It is quite possible that the fears your son shows about using the toilet, about being upstairs, or about going to sleep may have their origin in a fright he got watching television.

However, it is very likely that something different is maintaining the fears.

It is most likely that his frightened behaviour gets him lots of attention, support, and time with you and your wife. His experience is, probably, that when he is says he is frightened that you both respond by helping and supporting him.

Such help-seeking requests from children place us in quite an awkward situation. If we don't help at all then children can feel abandoned or rejected.

Yet, if we always help, then children never learn that they are able to help themselves. They can, in fact, develop a learned helplessness.

Also, when parents themselves are worriers by nature, they may over-focus on any symptoms of anxiety that their children show. Parents' own worries can exacerbate a child's anxiety.

So, ironically, our efforts to mind our children can sometimes disempower them.

For example, by constantly accompanying him upstairs, or to the toilet, you may, unintentionally, be giving him a message that you also worry (and believe) that he is not safe, or able, to do these things alone.

While his fears may be very real, they are not based on any actual danger. So, your job is to empathise with his fears, but then to encourage him to achieve the very things he is afraid of.

You must remember that his fears are long established and his need to have your help is quite habitual.

It would be very difficult for your son if you just withdrew all of your help and support suddenly. I would suggest, therefore, that you gradually reduce the amount of help you give him.

So you slowly wean him of his reliance on you for help to go upstairs, to go to the bathroom, or to get to sleep. All the time, you acknowledge that he might be frightened, but that you believe he will be okay, and that he can manage.

If he knows that you understand his worries, but at the same time have faith in his ability to do things for himself, he will be more empowered to do things independently. As he overcomes his fears I'd imagine that he will be happier in himself.

His social mixing (or lack of it) may also be based on an anxiety, or it may be part of his temperament. He might be slow to warm up with other children, feeling a bit overwhelmed in company and unsure about how to act or interact.

It will be interesting to see if his social confidence increases alongside his confidence to do more things by himself. If it does, then it may indicate his issues with friends were indeed anxiety-related.

If it doesn't, then you can focus on helping your child learn and practice social skills. You may need to show him how to share, to take turns, to show interest in other children and so on.

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